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Japanese Colonial Rule and Korea’s Modernization Essay

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Updated: Apr 11th, 2021

Introduction

The analysis of Japan’s colonial rule in Korea varies depending on the speaker and the period discussed. Korea had been Japan’s colony from 1910 until 1945. During that time, the country experienced considerable changes in political, cultural, social, and economic life. Some people consider Japan’s role in promoting Korea’s modernization as a positive one. These individuals say that since Japan assimilated some features under the Western impact earlier than Korea, it was able to implement many positive changes for Koreans.

Another opinion is that Japan suppressed Koreans’ identity, denied their cultural values, had a negative impacted on the development of democracy, and disabled the attainment of gender equality. The supporters of this view argue that Japan exploited Koreans in their own country without presenting any benefits for people. The paper suggests an overview of different scholars and historians on the role that Japanese colonial rule played in Korea’s process of modernization.

Changes in Social Life

Modifications in Korea’s social life during colonization were associated with two paradigms that were “diametrically opposed”: orthodox and revisionist (Ha 39). The orthodox one concentrated on social control and constraints, political intolerance, destruction of cultural integrity, and economic exploitation. The revisionist paradigm is focused on the beneficial economic changes, cultural hegemony, and the socio-cultural impact of Japan (Ha 39-40).

Revisionists blamed the orthodox approach for being too nationalistic. They argued that in spite of some negative outcomes of the colonial rule, the Korean economy benefited from it due to infrastructure accumulation and establishing bureaucracy (Ha 40). Although the two paradigms were radically dissimilar, they had some common methodological assumptions. Both orthodox and revisionist approaches had a “monosectoral” scope of reasoning and concentrated on economic problems (Ha 40).

Also, both of them performed a “war of case studies” in which one instant of exploitation was opposed by another instant of development (Ha 40). As a result, the two paradigms were deficient in a theoretical framework (Ha 40). Such a framework could have helped them to perceive the extensive social and institutional effects of colonial rule.

A crucial aspect of social life in Korea during colonization was the human rights movement. The reason why such a movement was initiated was that Japan prevented Korea from participating in modernization processes, which was accepted by Koreans with the opposition (J.-S. Kim 311). While Japanese colonialism subjugated any attempts to initiate a nationalist campaign in Korea, it promoted some “modern” social operations based on class and gender problems (J.-S. Kim 312).

One of the most well-known campaigns of that period was the paekchŏng liberation movement. In 1923, a group of “hereditary outcastes” formed the Equity society that operated for nearly ten years (J.-S. Kim 312). The major purpose of the organization was the cancellation of the traditional subjugation of the paekchŏng, the salvation from social discrimination and repression, and the generalization of dignity and egalitarian rights. The Equity movement for human rights derived the concept of liberation from its understanding of the modern society in which people’s rights should be realized through committed actions in political and social dimensions (J.-S. Kim 312). The history of the human rights movement in Korea was a perfect illustration of the shift from traditional to modern life in Korea.

One more significant aspect of Korea’s social life during colonization was the transition of women’s roles. In the 1920s-1930s, females did not have any rights to participate in the decision-making process in Korea (Wells 192). During colonization, women were encouraged to help men in opposing the colonial rule. However, all they obtained in return for their help was the promise to entitle females to more freedom after Korea’s liberation (Wells 192).

In Korean society, gender had always been used as an “interpretive framework” (Wells 193). As a result, in the twentieth century, women’s role in society became one of the major issues. In the 1920s, when constraints on Korean publications were reduced, there occurred an explosion of the debate on women’s rights (Wells 193). Early females’ campaigns were associated with religious movements. Later women’s movements were more focused on socialist concepts (Wells 193-194).

The key demands of such campaigns were related to positive changes for women in education, work, family, and social dimensions. Since even the men had very little freedom under colonization, women could not expect to have many demands satisfied. Still, their uprisings played a crucial role in the formation of social views in Korea.

Political Affairs

The opinions of the colonized and colonizers on the past are “diametrically opposite” (H. Y. Lee 3). Korean representatives view colonization as a humiliating experience not having encouraged any positive political development in the country. In their turn, Japanese politicians argue that colonization helped to transform Korea from a degraded state into a prosperous country (H. Y. Lee 3). The adverse outcomes of colonization can be traced even in modern political affairs between Japan and South and North Korea. The countries cannot arrange any diplomatic ties due to numerous disagreements (H. Y. Lee 3).

Japan’s colonialism passed three phases, each of them made a significant impact on Korea’s political affairs. The first stage was using force to suppress any resistance from Koreans (H. Y. Lee 5). Such an approach received the name “military rule,” and it entirely ignored the interests and customs of Koreans (H. Y. Lee 5). The second phase was called “cultural rule,” in which the tactics of conciliation was adopted by Japan (H. Y. Lee 6). During that period, some social and cultural freedoms were allowed to Koreans. The third stage had the most severe political implications. During that phase, Japan attempted to annihilate Korea’s identity completely and wanted to assimilate Koreans so that they could be mobilized for Japans’ war affairs.

In 1910-1919, Japan exercised military rule in Korea (Y.-J. Kim 76). Under that regime, there were no political freedoms for Koreans, and no liberties were allowed. However, at the end of the decade, activists initiated the March First movement that had started as a peaceful demonstration but grew into a serious political uprising that continued for several weeks and involved the participation of Koreans from every part of the peninsula (Y.-J. Kim 76). Although the attempts were suppressed, Koreans felt that uniting their forces could help them to free themselves from the chains of colonization.

Some scholars do not consider Japan’s impact on Korea’s political life significant enough (C. Lee 21). They argue that the significance of modernity needs to be revised (C. Lee 22). The notion of modernity is believed to encompass capitalist development, rationalization, industrialization, democracy, legality, and other aspects. However, the fixed shape of this process is put under doubt since it incorporates a variety of cultural and political forms (C. Lee 22). Therefore, Japan’s role in changing the political life in Korea is sometimes exaggerated.

An important issue in the political life of Korea during colonization is associated with the nationalist movement (Em 351). Japan exercised its power through censorship, restriction, and coercion (Em 353). What concerns the national identity of Koreans, it was supposed to be eradicated by the colonizing country. However, historians remark that Japan had some interest in leaving Koreans the illusion of taking care of their identity and political independence. The reason for doing so was that the Japanese wanted to implement its “racist colonial policy” that presupposed the conversion of peasants into Koreans, or “Chōsenjin” (Em 353).

By fulfilling such a goal, Japan wanted to unify all the Koreans under the title “Chōsenjin,” which would become an offensive classification used when talking about any Korean person despite class background, regional origin, or gender (Em 353). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the political situation in colonial Korea was rather tense. The adverse outcomes of such a state of affairs can still be noticed in the modern relationships between Japan and South and North Korea.

Economic Situation

The modernization of Korea’s economic system was closely related to the installation of capitalism and particularly industrial capitalism (D.-N. Kim 144). Rather than following the method of subsistence prevailing in pre-capitalist society, industrial capitalism preferred the “maximization of profit” reached by mass production and consumption (D.-N. Kim 144). The modernized economic system depended on the possibility to sell and buy everything in the market, even human labor. It was not possible to establish the value of human labor since Koreans were not able to be freed from the “traditional bonds” (D.-N. Kim 144).

Moreover, Japan was not much interested in developing Korea’s economy since it was focused on reaching the highest development for itself. Thus, Japan only exploited Koreans for fulfilling its aims without giving the colonized state an opportunity for progress. Still, under colonial rule, Korea managed to reach some improvement in the economy.

There are two approaches in regard to the economic impact of colonial rule. The nationalist perspective is aimed at connecting the disorder in Korea’s development with the effects of Japanese imperialism (D.-N. Kim 142). According to this approach, Japan’s aggression ruined the progress and dynamics of Korean society. The second method is modernist, and it considers the colonial period in Korea’s history as the start of a new and positive set of opportunities (D.-N. Kim 142). The modernist viewpoint tends to find associations between the development of the economy during colonial rule and the industrial progress following colonization.

The most popular concept in pre-war Japan and America concerning Korea’s economy was that Japanese colonialism had an exceptionally beneficial impact on Korea (H. Y. Lee 10). However, during the Pacific War, the opinion of the US altered, and they considered Korea as a victim of Japan’s brutal exploitation. Upon the liberation of Korea, its scholars disputed the opinion that the modernization of South Korea became possible due to Japanese colonization.

Such historiography was labeled as a “colonial historical perspective” (H. Y. Lee 10). Scholars defended the idea of a “nationalist interpretation” of Korea’s modern history (H. Y. Lee 10). Shin Yong Ha mentioned that the French approach to direct colonial rule and the British manner of indirect colonial rule had emerged from the “preoccupation with economic exploitation” (qt. in H. Y. Lee 10). Therefore, the cultural and ethnic traditions of the mentioned colonies were mostly undamaged. On the contrary, Japan’s colonization intended to eradicate Korea as a cultural and ethnic body by means of forced assimilation (H. Y. Lee 10).

However, after witnessing the “economic miracles” in Taiwan and Korea in the 1980s, some scholars returned to the pre-war opinion that Japan’s colonial rule had prepared the basis for Korea’s economic modernization (H. Y. Lee 10). Therefore, there are two different opinions regarding the impact of Japan’s colonization on the development of Korean economy. The supporters of the first one argue that Japan helped to establish stable economic growth in Korea. The second group of scholars argues that Korea would have reached better possibilities if it had not been colonized by Japan.

Cultural Changes

One of the most considerable changes in the cultural life of the colonial time was radio. In 1927, the Japanese Kyŏngsŏng Broadcast Corporation (KBC) started performing in Korea (Robinson 52). By the 1940s, the majority of schools, restaurants, village meeting sites, tearooms, and homes had radios. KBC was known to have arranged the closest ties between the colony and its “metropole” in the twentieth century (Robinson 52).

A popular interpretation of radio during the colonial period is that it was used for propaganda as well as for cultural assimilation. This statement is true since all colonial communications were kept under strict control, and the Japanese regarded radio as an opportunity to spread their cultural values and language (Robinson 52). In the mid-1930s, there was noted the reinforcement of the acculturation campaign and information regulation that received a name naisen ittai and meant “Japan and Korea as a single body” (Robinson 53). Since 1937, radio was largely used to transmit “sanitized” war news (Robinson 53).

However, it is necessary to note that radio did not have only propagandistic aims. Although colonial radio was under strict control from the center, there was a need to create an “all-Korean-language” scheme in order to encourage the Koreans to listen to the radio (Robinson 53). What is more, financing the radio system was required, which led to creating an all-Korean channel in addition to the mixed-language channel? After the implementation of the mentioned changes, more and more Koreans started buying radios (Robinson 53).

Gradually, the all-Korean channel became an exclusive cultural center that suggested programs of entertaining, educational, informational, and economic character. Between 1933 and 1941, Korean radio promoted the renaissance of traditional music, established new art forms, and presented Western music to Korean listeners (Robinson 53). Thus, Korean radio was initiated as a method of control, but it managed to become a tool with the help of which Koreans undermined Japanese cultural dominion.

Another cultural dimension that was developing during colonization was literature. The most prominent figure in this cultural aspect was Yi Kwangsu (Shin 248). Born in Korea and being an orphan, the writer won a scholarship to spend some time studying in Japan. Kwangsu wrote the first Korean novel – Mujŏng (The Heartless). He strengthened his position as a nationalist hero when he joined the “overseas” independent movement (Shin 249).

In 1919, prior to the Mart First movement, Kwangsu wrote: “the Declaration of the Chosŏn Independence Youth Corps” (Shin 249). Later, the writer was a member of the Korean Provisional Government. Upon returning to Chosŏn, Kwangsu was employed as an editor of Tonga Ilbo newspaper, which made him even more popular. Unfortunately, in the 1940s, the writer’s collaboration with the Japanese authorities became known (Shin 249). As a result, Kwangsu became the symbol of unfaithfulness in the Korean nationalist movement. Many attempts have been made to investigate Kwangsu’s works to find the roots of his betrayal.

However, scholars have not succeeded in establishing any direct connections between the author’s life and his political actions. Apart from novels and poems, Kwangsu was known for his articles. In one of them, “Our Ideals,” he remarked that the intellectuals’ duty was to establish new culture (Shin 254). The writer suggested making a distinction between the concepts of culture and civilization. Although Kwangsu’s political choices are still argued at the present time, his contribution to the development of Korean literature is invaluable.

Conclusion

Whether one supports the opinion that Korea’s modernization process was successful due to Japan’s colonization or that it was negatively impacted, one thing is inevitable. Life in the conditions of colonial rule did not remain as it had been prior to it. Nowadays, it is impossible to say whether South and North Korea could have appeared in the present state of affairs if it had not been colonized in 1910-1945.

Japan posed many restrictions on its colonized neighbor, including many unfavorable political, social, cultural, and economic changes. However, at the same time, the policy of restrictions encouraged a considerable shift in Koreans’ treatment of their national identity. As such, even though there were some adverse impacts of Japan’s rule in Korea during colonization, it also brought about some positive efforts that led to the prosperous development of one part of the country.

Works Cited

Em, Henry H. “Minjok as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin Ch’aeho’s Historiography.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 336-362.

Ha, Yong-School. “Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea: The Paradox of Colonial Control.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong-Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korean Studies Publications, 2013, pp. 39-75.

Kim, Dong-No. “National Identity and Class Interest in the Peasant Movements.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong-Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korean Studies Publications, 2013, pp. 140-172.

Kim, Joong-Seop. “In Search of Human Rights: The Paekchŏng Movement in Colonial Korea.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 311-335.

Kim, Yong-Jun. “Politics of Communication and the Colonial Public Sphere.” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong-Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korean Studies Publications, 2013, pp. 76-113.

Lee, Chulwoo. “Modernity, Legality, and Power in Korea Under Japanese Rule.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 21-51.

Lee, Hong Yung. “Introduction: A Critique of ‘Colonial Modernity.’” Colonial Rule and Social Change in Korea, 1910-1945, edited by Hong Yung Lee, Yong-Chool Ha, and Clark W. Sorensen, Center for Korean Studies Publications, 2013, pp. 3-38.

Robinson, Michael. “Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony, and Colonial Modernity in Korea, 1924-1945.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 52-69.

Shin, Michael D. “Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwangsu’s The Heartless and the Origins of Modern Literature.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 248-287.

Wells, Kenneth M. “The Price of Legitimacy: Women and the Kŭnuhoe Movement, 1927-1931.” Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Edson Robinson, Harvard University Asia Center, 1999, pp. 191-220.

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